TOKYO – With the advent of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus late last week, countries around the world rushed to close their borders to travelers from southern Africa, even in the absence of scientific information on whether such measures were necessary or would probably be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.
Japan has gone further than most other countries so far and announced on Monday that the world’s third largest economy would be closed to travelers everywhere.
It is a well-known tactic for Japan. The country has been closed to tourists since early in the pandemic, although most of the rest of the world began to travel again. And it had only tentatively opened this month for business travelers and students, despite having recorded the highest vaccination rate among the world’s major affluent democracies and after seeing the number of coronavirus cases fall by 99 percent since August.
Now that the doors are slamming shut, Japan is giving a sober case study of the human and economic costs of the closed borders. During the many months that Japan has been isolated, thousands of life plans have been suspended, leaving couples, students, academic researchers and workers in limbo.
Ayano Hirose has not been able to see her fiancé in person for the past 19 months since leaving Japan for her native Indonesia just two weeks after her parents blessed their marriage plans.
Since Japan has been closed to most outsiders, Mrs Hirose and her fiancé, Dery Nanda Prayoga, saw no clear path to reunification. Indonesia had begun to allow some visitors, but the logistical challenges were steep. So the couple has settled for several daily video calls. When they run out of things to talk about, they play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese varieties together online.
“We do not want to suffer from pain at the thought of not being able to be reunited in the near future,” Ms. Hirose, 21, who has written letters to the State Department and Justice asking for an exemption to allow Mr. Dery is coming to Japan. “So we will think positively and continue to hold out hope.”
As the United States, Britain, and most of Europe reopened during the summer and fall of vaccinated travelers, Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries opened their borders only a notch, even after achieving some of the world’s highest vaccination rates. Now, with the advent of the Omicron variant, Japan is rapidly merging with Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea again.
China, which has blocked international tourists since the start of the pandemic, so far still issues visas for work or diplomatic purposes, although limited flight options and long quarantines have deterred travelers. Taiwan has banned almost all non-residents from entering since the early pandemic. Australia, which only recently began allowing citizens and visa holders to travel abroad, said Monday it would delay easing its border restrictions. Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand have all excluded travelers from southern Africa where the variant was first reported.
Although the true threat of the new variant is not yet clear, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan told reporters on Monday that he had decided to recall the easing for business travelers and international students to “avoid the worst case scenario.”
The government’s decision to close again reflects its desire to preserve its successes in fighting the virus and prevent the kind of strain on the health care system that it experienced during the summer during an outbreak of the Delta variant.
Japan only registers about 150 coronavirus cases a day, and before the advent of the Omicron variant, business leaders had called for a more aggressive reopening.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, Japan did what most countries around the world did – we thought we needed proper border controls,” Yoshihisa Masaki, communications director at Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobby group, said in an interview earlier this month.
But as cases got smaller, he said, the continuation of fixed border restrictions threatened to slow economic progress. “It will be like Japan being left behind during the Edo period,” Mr. Masaki with reference to Japan’s isolationist era between the 17th and mid-19th centuries.
Japan had already lagged behind countries in Southeast Asia, where economies are dependent on tourism revenues and governments have taken the lead in the pressure to reopen. Thailand had recently reopened to tourists from 63 countries, and Cambodia had just begun welcoming vaccinated visitors with minimal restrictions. Other countries, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, allowed tourists from certain countries to arrive in restricted areas.
Wealthy Asian countries like Japan resisted the pressure to reopen. With the exception of its decision to host the Summer Olympics, Japan has been cautious throughout the pandemic. It was early to close its borders and close schools. It only launched its vaccination campaign after conducting its own clinical trials. And eating and drinking time remained limited in many prefectures until September.
Foreign companies could not bring in managers or other employees to replace those who moved home or to another international position, said Michael Mroczek, a lawyer in Tokyo who chairs the European Business Council.
In a statement Monday, the council said business travelers or new employees should be allowed in, provided they follow strict test and quarantine measures.
“Japan’s success on the vaccination front should be trusted,” the council said. “And Japan and its people are now solidly capable of reaping the economic gains.”
Business executives said they wanted science to guide future decisions. “Those of us who live and work in Japan appreciate that government policies so far have significantly limited the impact of the pandemic here,” said Christopher LaFleur, former U.S. ambassador to Malaysia and special adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
But, he said, “I think we really need to look at science in the coming days” to see if a complete border closure is justified.
Students have also been thrown into uncertainty. It is estimated that 140,000 or more have been accepted to universities or language schools in Japan and have been waiting months to enter the country to begin their studies.
Carla Dittmer, 19, had hoped to move from Hanstedt, a city south of Hamburg, Germany, to Japan over the summer to study Japanese. Instead, she has gotten up every morning at. 1 to attend an online language course in Tokyo.
“I feel anxious and frankly desperate sometimes because I have no idea when I will be able to travel into Japan and whether I will be able to keep up with my studies,” Ms. Dittmer. “I can understand the need for caution, but I hope Japan will resolve that issue with immigration measures such as tests and quarantine instead of its wall-up policy.”
The border closures have economically leveled out many regions and industries that depend on foreign tourism.
When Japan announced its reopening to business travelers and international students earlier this month, Tatsumasa Sakai, 70, the fifth-generation owner of a store selling ukiyo-e, or wooden blocks, in Asakusa, a popular tourist destination in Tokyo, hoped the move was a first step towards further reopening.
“As case numbers were falling, I thought we could get more tourists and Asakusa could move towards coming back to life again,” he said. “I guess the government this time is just taking precautions, but it’s still very disappointing.”
Sir. Dery and Ms. Hirose also faces a long wait. Sir. Dery, who met Ms. Hirose, while both working for a car parts manufacturer, returned to Indonesia in April 2020, after his Japanese work visa expired. Three months before he left, he proposed to Mrs. Hirose during an excursion to the DisneySea theme park near Tokyo.
Ms Hirose had booked a flight to Jakarta for May so the couple could get married, but by that time the borders were closed in Indonesia.
“Our marriage plan fell apart,” Mr. Dery, 26, by phone from Jakarta. “There is no clarity on how long the pandemic will last.”
Last week, Mr Dery secured a passport and hoped to fly to Japan in February or March.
After hearing about Japan’s renewed border closures, he said he was not surprised. “I was hopeful,” he said. “But suddenly the border is closing again.”
“I do not know what else to do,” he added. “This pandemic seems endless.”
Reporting was contributed by Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue in Tokyo; Dera Menra Sijabat in Jakarta, Indonesia; Richard C. Paddock in Bangkok; John Yoon in Seoul; Raymond Zhong in Taipei, Taiwan; and Yan Zhuang in Sydney, Australia.